“If music be the food of love, play on,” Shotgun Players! Oh yeah!

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Lost in language

It’s summer and time for Shakespeare! Director John Tracy and his cast have devised a fresh and innovative look at this rolicksome portrayal of the confusions of love by providing a variety of songs and musical treatments. From ragtime to folk song to gospel and blues, the production’s interpretations of songs add to the upside-down festive antics of this story of mistaken identities, misplaced love and the predictable but ever amusing comic fare that makes Shakespeare an enduring force in theater. The Shotgun Players version of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s fantastic four, was a year in the making. 

OK, I know language is what makes Shakespeare to swoon for, but theatrically the plots of his comedy are what drags us all to the theater. We could just laze about at home, reading his genius poetry, drinking cups of tea (or wine and whiskey, for you racier types) and saving ourselves a heap of money and the aggravation of driving around the streets and freeways of the Bay Area. But there is something compelling about watching the foibles of love embodied on an artificially lit stage. Plot is what moves theater.

… and found in music

In this production, plot is interlaced with musical performance, which tends to be about storytelling rather than enacting plot. A singer focuses short parable-like stories into the concentrated presence of a single performance. Interaction tends to abate the intensity of the performance. In opera these “interruptions” to the general soundscape are compelling because of the extraordinary vocal quality of the performers.

Tracy’s Twelfth Night partakes of the operatic, including creating a soundscape throughout the action of the play by vocalization. Rebecca Pingree, who plays the cross-dressed Viola, added wonderfully improvised vocalizations as an occasional background to other characters’ speeches and acts. Often the entire cast joined forces into create a harmonic backdrop to the moment.

Although there are many songs in the original play, Tracy and the cast led by Music Director Ben Euphrat, who also plays the emotionally volatile and wayward Count Orsino, added songs using Shakespeare’s sonnets 140 (“Be wise as though art cruel”) and 147 (“My love is as a fever”). As musicians the group calls themselves by the collective name of The Shakedown.

One of the highlights of the show was Maria’s performance of a song based on lines from “The Rape of Lucrece.” As a dark chastisement of the arrogant but rather abused Malvolio, she sings a hard rock “To wrong the wronger till he render right” accompanied by the rest of the cast, writhing in crashing and dissonant chords. Only the flashing lights coursing a drug-soaked auditorium were missing. Sound Technician Matt Stines kept it all rolling along, maintaining acoustic clarity and evenness.

Speaking of Malvolio, Terry Rucker provided an excellent and wry characterization of this human blight on the love-soaked and stormy land of Illyria. With a rolling bluesy style he sang of the sorrow of his misbegotten ambition and admiration of his mistress Olivia (Ari Rampy).

One of the many interesting aspects of this production is its lack of place and time. It’s hard to tell exactly where and when the action is set. The costuming (Christine Crook) and sets (Nina Ball) are in a contemporary somewhere surrounded by sea and scaffolding. There are instruments everywhere, on the ground and hanging from the walls: guitars, acoustic and electric; mandolin and banjo; percussion instruments (including a washboard); an accordion and a piano upstage and an assortment of microphones and the accompanying cables. A witty device was the use of an exercise bicycle as the horse of the patsy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Nick Medina).

Unfortunately the spoken dynamics, which tended to have only two dynamics: normal and loud, were not as effective as the music. It’s hard to yell Shakespeare and be understood, unless you’re British. Some of the characters would have been better served by less noise and more diction. Even so, the overall production was engaging, sparkling and imaginative.

– Jaime Robles


The Shotgun Players’ Twelfth Night continues through August 17, 2014, at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. For information and tickets, call 510-841-6500, or visit

Photo: Viola (Rebecca Pingree), newly shipwrecked on Illyria, with the clown Feste (Jeremy Vik) in the Shotgun Players’ version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth NightPhoto by Pak Ha.